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Special Report: Rockford’s Invention Engine

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NIU EIGERlab hopes to increase jobs and create wealth in the region, with a unique project to make Rockford a leader in manufacturing innovation once again.

Rockford has a rich history of inventors starting companies within the Forest City as far back as 1870, when Amos Woodward invented controls for waterwheels, thus starting Woodward Governor.  John Nelson created the knitting machine that launched Nelson Knitting in 1868.  Howard Coleman’s many inventions included the electric garage door opener and the Check Pump that began Barber-Coleman Company in 1894.

That same innovative spirit can be found at NIU EIGERlab.

“It’s a product development organization that helps individuals, entrepreneurs, and innovators who have physical or digital products and get them to marketplace,” said NIU EIGERlab’s Executive Director, Dan Cataldi.

Charlie Hare, who owns a fire and water restoration company, came up with a unique device that can save his entire industry money.

“You just set it on the floor and you hit it with a rubber mallet,” said Charlie Hare of Restoration Tools.  “It puts a hole in the wall.  It’s a 5/8 hole that goes through.  It will go up over a floor plate and that just makes the drying process when we’re doing restoration work go a lot faster.”

Hare took his idea to NIU EIGERlab’s Center for Product Development, where Mike Cobert and Jeff Metters helped transform his thoughts, via a computer model, into a physical prototype.

“They set it all up in CAD (Computer Assisted Design) for you,” said Hare.  “They actually did one on a 3-D printer.  They’re not functional, but they just speed up the process.”

From goose decoys to a working hand, if it can be sketched on paper, the Product Development Center can make it.  It’s an evolving process, much like the organization itself. 

EIGERlab was acquired by Northern Illinois University over a year ago, creating an educational partnership.

“NIU EIGERlab allows us to connect our aspirations for innovation and entrepreneurship, programming, student experiential learning, [and] engagement with the community, helping with economic development [and] job creation,” said Rena Cotsones, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Engagement and Innovation Partnerships for NIU.  “We want our students to see that and experience that and be part of that growth.”

Entrepreneurs like Hare, who in addition to his aerator, is working on several other tools and devices with the help of NIU EIGERlab.  “They are nothing but a great resource,” said Hare.  “I would highly recommend them.”

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